Brian Hartline continues ascension at Ohio State with Marvin Harrison Jr. leading nation's best receiver room


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Aug 26, 2023

Brian Hartline continues ascension at Ohio State with Marvin Harrison Jr. leading nation's best receiver room

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It is nearing noon and Marvin Harrison Jr. has been practicing football for about five hours. No one around the Ohio State indoor facility has blinked at the All-American wide

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It is nearing noon and Marvin Harrison Jr. has been practicing football for about five hours. No one around the Ohio State indoor facility has blinked at the All-American wide receiver's level of dedication. It is as assumed as the Michigan countdown clock in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that reminds all Buckeyes of their No. 1 priority.

But since being observed in the facility at 7 a.m. on the first day of fall drills -- catching balls from a state-of-the-art pass-throwing robot called "The Seeker" -- Harrison is putting the finishing touches on another round of refinement: arriving early and staying late.

He is not alone. There is a passel of Buckeye wideouts gathered around the machine trying to keep alive the label that lives inside The Woody ... and their heads: Best Receiver Room in America.

"Every day," teammate Emeka Egbuka says of The Seeker sessions. "[After] away games, too. Twelve-thirty, 1 o'clock in the morning after a road game is the latest we've gone out. Me and Marv have a key to the lights. They just gave us that because they knew we'd be here 24/7."

All of it is overseen by a 36-year-old born and bred Buckeye who is already a central figure at Ohio State and on his way to becoming one nationally across college football.

"I would say it's uncommon, but it's not," said Brian Hartline, Ohio State's offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, of his players' work ethic.

It is Hartline's ascension to coordinator this season that has Ohio State and the profession buzzing. When Kevin Wilson left to become coach at Tulsa, Hartline was bumped up to a $1.6 million salary to lead a record-setting offense he helped create.

Hartline, 247Sports' top-ranked recruiter in 2020 and a top-10 talent acquirer annually, retained receivers coach duties. That adds juice to his story. He has the coordinator title and that raise but not necessarily play calling autonomy from coach Ryan Day.

Day said last week those duties would be a "joint effort" with Hartline having "an opportunity to call it as well as time goes on."

If that sounds a bit Jimbo Fisher-esque, there is a crucial difference. Texas A&M is seeking a solution by hiring Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator. This feels more like a transition at Ohio State. With Day as play caller, the Buckeyes have led the Big Ten in scoring each year since 2017, including when they posted a school-record 46.9 points in 2019.

Ever since Hartline joined as WR coach in 2018, Ohio State has become arguably the dominant developer of receiving talent in the country.

"In my opinion, we probably have the best group in America [this season]," Hartline said. "I hate to say that, but they've earned that."

Gone are three first-round draft choices -- quarterback C.J. Stroud and All-America tackle Paris Johnson and standout WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba -- in a transition year of sorts. The Buckeyes are still loaded, just a different kind of loaded. Heading into the season opener Saturday against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), Day is still looking for a quarterback, though he has named Kyle McCord the Week 1 starter as the internal battle continues.

Day is among a dwindling number of college head coaches who still call their own plays. That he would even contemplate handing over play calling is a reflection of Hartline's career arc, which has been trending upward for a while. (Hartline did admit to drinking before crashing his ATV in April.)

If Day didn't promote Hartline, he risked losing a budding coaching talent, possibly to a national championship contending rival.

Instead, the Best Receiver Room in America retained its bandleader.

This one is wielding a machete rather than a conductor's baton. Hartline has both the credibility and age proximity to relate to his players. As a dependable receiver under Jim Tressel from 2006-08, Hartline used his talents to last seven years in the NFL.

In 2018, he made the leap from quality control to WR coach at his alma mater. In the last three seasons under Hartline, Ohio State has platformed four first-team All-Big Ten selections at the position.

The run of excellence has reinforced the program's claim as "Wide Receiver U." Since 1986, Ohio State has produced seven All-Americans at the position, including three over the last two seasons: Harrison, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

Wilson, Olave and Smith-Njigba are three Buckeyes wideouts who have been selected in the first round of the last two NFL Drafts.

Hartline is doing something right being young (only eight years removed from the NFL), brilliant and sometimes brash.

"The guys who come into our room, their goal is not to be a great college player," he explained. "That's a byproduct of everything they're trying to chase. Marvin, Emeka [Egbuka], Julian [Fleming] and Xavier [Johnson], they're trying to be top tier pros. They're chasing [NFL] rookie of the year."

So far in their careers, that 2023 group has produced two 1,000-yard seasons (Harrison, Egbuka), one All-America season (Harrison) and 35 career touchdowns receiving. That lags behind the 2021 group who, in one season, produced two 1,000-yard campaigns (Smith-Njigba, Wilson) and 34 touchdowns receiving among the top three pass catchers alone.

Not to compare one group against the other, but it happens every day at Ohio State.

"These guys grew up with it -- social media, high school," Hartline said. "To go to Ohio State [with] different schools coming at you. 'Oh, you won't play there.' … There is so much put on that day-to-day to academics to peer pressure to being good enough not to have an off day."

Hence those sessions with The Seeker sessions during which players will each catch hundreds of balls.

"They're not trying to be old college receivers; they're trying to be young NFL receivers," said Hartline.

"I don't know if there is anyone within a quarter of how many balls we catch," he added.

Harrison might be the best one of them all. That list includes Terry Glenn, Ohio State's only Biletnikoff Award winner (nation's best receiver) in 1995. It also includes the legendary Cris Carter, Ohio State's first receiver All-American in 1986. David Boston still holds the school record with 14 separate 100-yard games.

This despite Harrison only playing two seasons thus far in which he has combined to catch 88 balls and score 17 TDs. His 14 touchdowns receiving last season were more than 22 teams.

"I think we have a chance to recreate that 2021 room," Harrison said.

If not for Harrison's injury in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia, the Buckeyes might be sporting a national championship that has been so elusive under Day.

"Yup, 100%," Harrison said. "My presence out there changes the way they have to call their defense."

Harrison enters the 2023 season as the best receiver in the game, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Sample this reaction from Hartline to being asked whether he's ever had an "alpha" like Harrison who has the game, the dad (hall of famer Marvin Harrison Sr.), the work ethic and … the chips. (Harrison has an NIL deal with a local potato chip company._

"That doesn't make him an alpha," Hartline shot back. "What if he doesn't talk and he's timid in the room? Does that make him an alpha?"

No, it doesn't.

But just watching him does. During a recent receivers meeting that included 16 wideouts, Harrison sat in the front row offering input and handing out those Grippo's chips like a veteran marketer.

In his third year, Harrison is already a veteran superstar with speed, sticky hands, precise route running and a game that seems to borrow something from each of those recent greats that came before him: Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba.

"Not only is he freakishly talented, he is freakishly gifted," Johnson said. "... He's kind of had the world in front of him his whole life but has never allowed that to go to his head."

The "best" claim will no doubt create arguments nationwide. Meanwhile, the mood of those receiver room meetings remain as constant as those sessions with The Seeker. There is a slow burn of knowledge, ability, competition and a "Who's next?" mentality.

If the inhabitants of that room want to know where they rank nationally, they need not look around the country ... just around the room.

"After spring ball, I let then rank themselves," Hartline said. "'You want to think you know where you're at? I'll just ask your peers.' Don't blame me. Peers know.

"All of a sudden [it might be], 'Oh, I'm the third guy?' 'No, you're the seventh.'"

Watch CBS Sports Confidential: B1G Football 2023 for an inside look at every Big Ten program ahead of the 2023 season airing on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.

CBS Sports Confidential: B1G Football 2023Saturday, Sept. 2 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS